At home I never much thought about being different and, kind of, tended to see most people as the same, regardless of their colour, race etc. Now, I’m not trying to promote myself for any sort of humanitarian award…I just never really thought about it.
Coming to Africa, difference hit me right in my ‘not-the-same-as-everybody-else’ face. I was all of a sudden aware of difference in a most concentrated way. Walking anywhere I was aware of how I resonated a different colour into this place, as if I had been dipped in some sort of bleach…..I stood out, whether I wanted to or not. We could ask if this means that we don’t have a choice in being different.
This experience of literally being able to feel the colour of my skin as I was walked round in it was, and continues to be, an extraordinary feeling. I began to feel that everybody was the same except me. At home I never noticed if I had skin or not, except when it rained and then I was usually thankful of it. But this is just obviously a superficial manifestation of my difference. I was also beginning to recognise that I was different at a deeper level. The way in which I processed what I absorbed from the world around me was different to the way the same information was being absorbed by somebody who wasn’t me. Of course this is true for all of us, in all situations but when the goldfish is taken from his bowl and plunged into the ocean, I am sure that stuff seems different.
But was I any different? Did I sound the same? Yes. Look the same? Pretty much. Was I recognisable when speaking to some body on the phone from home? Of course. But somehow I was the same but different and it was only by the experience of being placed in a situation which reflected this that I began to appreciate my differentness and, even, my uniqueness.
Why is this in any way either interesting or important? For the simple reason that in recognising my differentness I was able to, in some way, tune into the fact that the world doesn’t begin and end with my preconception of it, that the world in fact is an expansive, every changing series of experiences in which the differentness of each one is like a thread, woven into the tapestry we call life, by our shared experience of it. As I walk every face that passes me is, in some way, changed by mine and I in turn am changed by them, mostly, without ever saying a word.
When I return home I hope I can continue to see difference. But hang on, society tells us difference is bad, we should all be the same. Nonsense. We should all be respected for our uniqueness and difference but most definitely not encouraged to be the ‘same’. It’s our difference that enriches, colours, reflects and ultimately changes.
Here in the Friary, by recognising that the Brothers around me who I share this life experience with are different to me, to each other as, obviously, I am to all of them, I could begin to listen deeply to their extraordinary stories and they to mine, stories which I am sure we considered to be just the same. Stories which have changed me and shaped me and will continue to long after I leave this place.
Contemplating, appreciated, encouraging , caring for and respecting our difference is a deep hymn of thanksgiving to the Artist whose brush filled this world with the colourful strokes, of every shape and depth, that makes it home. It is in this multitude of difference and diversity that we are blended into the Divine Image we are called to recognise in ourselves and each other. May we always live our difference in respect for the difference of others.